Striving to find the spiritual in art

From a talk given by a lecturer in art history on 'Art and the Spiritual' at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in south London
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The Independent Online

When we think of the spiritual in art, we tend to think only of religious art, but a consideration of the Old Master collection at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, and of the current Eileen Cooper exhibition, encourages a much broader approach to the subject.

When we think of the spiritual in art, we tend to think only of religious art, but a consideration of the Old Master collection at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, and of the current Eileen Cooper exhibition, encourages a much broader approach to the subject.

There is a difference between that which is religious and that which is spiritual. We might say that Eileen Cooper's art is spiritual but not religious. At Dulwich Picture Gallery there are many works which also fall under this definition.

The spiritual can be defined broadly as that which expresses or evokes the numinous - that combination of attraction and awe which we feel when confronting an aspect of the divine, the overwhelming, the inexplicable, and not necessarily the overtly religious. Some of the most moving expressions of spirituality in art can be found in paintings of the natural world. Erasmus had taught in the 16th century that God is everywhere, and in the 17th century, Protestants in the newly liberated Netherlands, rejecting the traditional religious painting fostered by the Roman Catholic Church, encouraged contemplation of nature to further religious meditation. This attitude is best seen in the works of Jacob van Ruisdael.

More recently, another Dutch artist, Van Gogh, had a similar view of the spiritual in nature. In an English context we might consider the works of John Constable, for whom the landscape was an aspect of God, or in the 20th century of Paul Nash, who cherished the landscape with such a visionary passion that his horror at its destruction in the First World War caused him to write to his wife from the front: "no glimmer of God's hand can be seen anywhere. Sunset and sunrise are blasphemous." What Nash's First World War paintings reveal is the absence of the spiritual.

Of course, despite what I have already said, the spiritual in Western European art is most frequently to be found in religious paintings, since it is Christianity that has dominated Western European art for almost two thousand years.

Many very fine examples of such paintings can be seen at Dulwich. The most enduring image in all Christian art is that of the Crucifixion - the supreme example of suffering, injustice and inhumanity in our culture, and one which has been used again and again in art and literature.

At the Dulwich Picture Gallery we can see many paintings which, though they depict scenes from the Old Testament or from Greek mythology, may nevertheless, be interpreted as expressing Christian belief. As Christianity became established, the early Church Fathers set about reconciling the Christian faith with the Old Testament; this was known as "typology". Many typological images linking the life of Christ and Christian teaching to events in the Old Testament can be seen at Dulwich: for example, King David in the Old Testament is important as a "type" of Christ, so that Poussin's painting The Triumph of David can be seen to represent Christ's victory over Satan.

In the 20th century, art is frequently profoundly spiritual, but it can - as the exhibition of Eileen Cooper's work demonstrates - be more general and pantheistic than earlier art, which was often created under the guidance of the Church or with Church approval in mind.

Today the power of the Church is much diminished, but our desire for the spiritual is still very strong and, with an awareness of the modern multi-cultural society, is often expressed by artists in less conventional and recognisable ways.

Eileen Cooper says that her art is deeply spiritual, and in this she is carrying on a long tradition in art that goes back to the ancient world. This is very much in evidence in the works on view in Dulwich, not only in the genuine spirituality of her paintings, but in the subjects themselves.

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